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Huge Win for Refined Coal: DC Appeals Court Permits Tax Credits

On August 5, 2022, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the US Tax Court’s bench opinion in favor of partners and investors in a refined coal business. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has consistently fought taxpayers’ attempts to claim a tax credit for refining coal despite a clear congressional mandate in Internal Revenue Code section 45(c)(7)(A). The IRS has repeatedly taken the position that the partnerships formed to utilize the tax credits generated by the refined coal business are not bona fide because the partnerships could never make an economic profit without the tax credits.

In Cross Refined Coal LLC, the IRS examined the partnership’s 2011 and 2012 tax years and disallowed $25.8 million of refined coal production tax credits and $25.7 million of claimed operating losses. The IRS argued that:

  • The partnership did not exist as a matter of fact.
  • The partnership was not, in substance, a partnership for federal income tax purposes because it was not formed to carry on a business or for the sharing of profits and losses from the production or sale of refined coal by its purported members/partners, but rather was created to facilitate the prohibited transaction of monetizing refined coal tax credits.
  • The transaction was entered into solely to purchase refined coal tax credits and other tax benefits.
  • Claimed expenses were not ordinary and necessary or credible expenses in connection with a trade or business or other activity engaged in for profit.

After a two-week trial involving several witnesses and thousands of exhibits, the Tax Court held that the partnership was legitimate because its partners made substantial contributions to the partnership, participated in its management and shared in its profits and losses. The IRS appealed to the DC Circuit.

In affirming the Tax Court, the DC Circuit held that the partners intended to form a partnership and had legitimate non-tax motives for the business. The Court diffused any concern that the partnership included tax benefits, explaining that “there was nothing untoward about seeking partners who could apply the refined-coal credits immediately, rather than carrying them forward to future tax years.” The Court also recognized that “Congress expressly provided for coal refiners to employ this investment strategy, for the tax code specifies how the credit must be divided when a refining facility has multiple owners.” The Court was not persuaded by the IRS’s concern that the partners did not enter the partnership to obtain a pre-tax profit: “[a]ccording to the Commissioner, Cross’s partners did not have the requisite intent to carry on a business together because Cross was not ‘undertaken for profit or for other legitimate nontax business purposes.’” The Court disagreed, explaining:

As a general matter, a partnership’s pursuit of after-tax profit can be legitimate business activity for partners to carry on together. This is especially true in the context of tax incentives, which exist precisely to encourage activity that would not otherwise be profitable.

The DC Circuit found [...]

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Amici Support Whirlpool’s Request for Supreme Court Review

As we previously discussed, toward the end of June Whirlpool Financial Corporation & Consolidated Subsidiaries and Whirlpool International Holdings S.a.r.l. & Consolidated Subsidiaries (collectively, Whirlpool) asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision that income earned by a Luxembourg controlled foreign corporation was foreign base company sales income (FBCSI) under the branch rule of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 954(d)(2) and taxable to the corporation as “subpart F income.” (For an excellent dissection of the Sixth Circuit’s decision, please see our colleagues’ article, “Implications of the Sixth Circuit’s Whirlpool Opinion.”)

Several amici recently filed briefs with the Supreme Court supporting Whirlpool. The docket sheet for the case, titled Whirlpool Financial Corp. et al., Petitioners, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 22-9, is available here.

On August 3, 2022, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) submitted its brief, setting forth two arguments:

First, the Sixth Circuit applied an entirely novel interpretation—not found anywhere in the Code or Treasury regulations and not advanced by the agency nor adopted by the Tax Court—that conflicts with decades-old regulations promulgated contemporaneously with the underlying statute and at Congress’s express command in section 954(d)(2) itself.

 

Second, reliance on validly promulgated regulations—and therefore regulated parties’ ability to comply with the laws—is the bedrock of administrative law. If taxpayers must follow regulations or face the prospect of civil (and perhaps even criminal) penalties, then so too must the government be held to its binding, published actions.

On August 4, 2022, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Deloitte Tax LLP and KPMG LLP (collectively, Accounting Firms) joined forces to bring the “exceptionally important” nature of the case to the Supreme Court’s attention. (The brief states that Ernst & Young LLP did not participate as amicus curiae because it is Whirlpool’s financial statement auditor.) In their brief, the Accounting Firms assert:

The Sixth Circuit’s disregard of the regulations in its attempt to interpret the requirements of the statute creates substantial uncertainty with respect to the efforts to comply with the Internal Revenue Code and the Amici who advise them. Review by this Court is necessary to reassure taxpayers that when Congress expressly conditions tax provisions on the issuance of Treasury Regulations, courts will take those regulations into account in interpreting the requirements of the Internal Revenue Code.

Also on August 4, a third brief was submitted by the Silicon Valley Tax Directors Group, the National Foreign Trade Council, the Information Technology Industry Council and TechNet. These amici assert:

This Court should alleviate [the] disparate treatment among taxpayers—or even the same taxpayer in different federal courts—by recognizing the importance of the clear statutory command that branch income “shall constitute” FBCSI only “under regulations prescribed by the Secretary [of the Treasury].” 26 U.S.C. § 954(d)(2). Restoring taxpayer reliance on those regulations is crucial for preserving Congress’s desired uniform scheme and [...]

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Sixth Circuit Denies Proceeds Regulation Rehearing Request, Sets Up a Circuit Split

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently denied a taxpayer’s request for a rehearing en banc in Oakbrook Land Holdings, LLC v. Commissioner, No. 20-2117, leaving a highly contested conservation easement regulation in place and setting up a split between the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits.

In Oakbrook, the taxpayer argued that Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(6)(ii), known as the “proceeds regulation,” was invalid because it did not satisfy the Administrative Procedure Act’s (APA) notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. The regulation addresses how to allocate proceeds between donors and donees if an easement is judicially extinguished and the property is sold. In May 2020, the US Tax Court held that the regulation was “procedurally and substantively valid” under the APA. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the Tax Court, upholding the regulation.

The Sixth Circuit’s order issued July 6, 2022, indicated that neither the judges on the original panel nor any other judge on the full court requested a vote for a suggested rehearing. Last year, however, the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in Hewitt v. Commissioner, finding that the same regulation was invalid because it violated the APA. Thus, there is a clear circuit split on the issue.

Practice Point: The government did not seek a review of the Hewitt decision from the Supreme Court of the United States, so that ruling stands in the Eleventh Circuit. It remains to be seen whether the taxpayer in Oakbrook files a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. With a split between the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits, it is possible this conservation easement battle could be headed to the Supreme Court to determine the fate of the proceeds regulation.




Will the Supreme Court Rule on Whirlpool’s Subpart F Income Case?

A war is currently waging in the tax world over when courts should give deference to the US Department of the Treasury’s regulations. (We have written extensively on this subject here and here.) However, another potential war looms: Can courts disregard validly promulgated regulations relied on by taxpayers in favor of their own statutory interpretation? This question lies at the heart of the Whirlpool case.

On June 30, 2022, Whirlpool asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s decision that income earned by a Luxembourg controlled foreign corporation was foreign base company sales income (FBCSI) under the branch rule of Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 954(d)(2) and taxable to the corporation as “subpart F income.”

During the trial phase of the litigation, the US Tax Court held that the branch income regulations (and the regulatory manufacturing exception therein), were validly promulgated and interpreted the regulations in a manner favorable to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). (See 154 T.C. 142 (2020).)

Whirlpool appealed, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed in a 2-1 decision. (See 19 F.4th 944 (6th Cir. 2021).) Unlike the Tax Court, which reached its decision by harmoniously reading the statute and regulations, the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the IRS based solely on its interpretation of IRC section 954(d)(2), ignoring the relevant regulations and how the IRS and other courts have interpreted them. For an excellent dissection of the Court’s ruling, please see our colleagues’ article, “Implications of the Sixth Circuit’s Whirlpool Opinion.”

Whirlpool sought rehearing and rehearing en banc in the Sixth Circuit. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Silicon Valley Tax Directors Group also filed amicus briefs supporting Whirlpool (McDermott acted as counsel for NAM in this capacity). However, the Sixth Circuit denied Whirlpool’s request for rehearing and rehearing en banc.

Now, Whirlpool is seeking the guidance of the Supreme Court, asking “whether or in what circumstances a statute that is expressly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by an agency may be enforced without regard to such regulations.” In seeking certiorari, Whirlpool argues:

The divided Sixth Circuit below held that a tax statute explicitly conditioned on regulations to be promulgated by the Secretary of the Treasury delineating the income subject to taxation could be enforced without consulting the Secretary’s regulations, even though the regulations bound the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and the IRS actually imposed tax based on the regulations. That decision directly contravenes [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and settled administrative-law principles. It upsets the reliance interests of taxpayers who, for more than 50 years, have relied on the regulations in structuring their operations. And this issue is outcome-determinative because — as the dissent below concluded — the income at issue is not taxable under a proper reading of the regulations (emphasis in original).

Whirlpool further argues that left unchecked, the Sixth Circuit’s decision [...]

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The “Major Questions Doctrine”: Another Tool to Challenge Tax Regulations?

Debates have raged in recent years over the future of Chevron deference, particularly given the change in the makeup and views of the Supreme Court of the United States. We have written extensively on Chevron deference in the past (see here, here and here, for example). Although the Court has not addressed the continuing viability of Chevron, it has recently found ways to avoid applying Chevron deference to questions involving the interpretation of agency regulations.

In West Virginia v. EPA, No. 20-1530 (June 30, 2022), the Supreme Court did not address Chevron deference directly. However, it reconfirmed and applied what is known as the “major questions doctrine.” Under this judicial doctrine, which originated in FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 529 U.S. 120 (2000), a federal agency must point to clear congressional authorization for the authority it claims. Meaning, when a statute confers authority upon an agency to promulgate rules, a court must determine whether US Congress wanted to give the agency the power to make decisions of vast economic and political significance. Accordingly, “[a]gencies have only those powers given to them by Congress and it must be presumed that major policy decisions are left with Congress, not agencies.”

The Supreme Court’s recent decision is not limited to a particular agency. Indeed, the major questions doctrine has been applied in a tax context before. In King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. 473 (2015), for example, the Court applied the major questions doctrine in declining to defer to tax regulations interpreting the Affordable Care Act (internal references omitted):

In extraordinary cases … there may be reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress has intended [] an implicit delegation [to the agency to fill in the statutory gaps]. … This is one of those cases. The tax credits are among the Act’s key reforms, involving billions of dollars in spending each year and affecting the price of health insurance for millions of people. Whether those credits are available on Federal Exchanges is thus a question of deep economic and political significant that is central to this statutory scheme; had Congress wished to assign that question to the agency, it surely would have done so expressly. It is especially unlikely that Congress would have delegated this decision to the IRS, which has no expertise in crafting health insurance policy of this sort.

Thus, it appears that the major questions doctrine is now firmly entrenched as another tool of statutory construction and should be considered in any analysis of whether tax regulations have been validly promulgated and are entitled to deference.

Practice Point: It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court’s recent decision will impact future challenges to tax regulations. In the not too distant past, Administrative Procedure Act challenges to tax regulations and other published guidance were rare, but the Court’s 2011 decision in Mayo Found. for Med. Educ. & Research v. United [...]

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Judge Kathleen Kerrigan Begins Term as Tax Court’s Chief Judge

On June 1, 2022, Judge Kathleen Kerrigan began her two-year term as Chief Judge of the US Tax Court. Her election as Chief Judge was announced earlier this year and covered on the blog here. Chief Judge Kerrigan replaces Judge Maurice B. Foley, who served as Chief Judge from June 1, 2018, through May 31, 2022.




A Look at the Tax Court’s Congressional Budget Justification

We frequently write about developments at the US Tax Court, including noteworthy cases, administrative matters, and the status of presidentially appointed Judges and court-appointed Special Trial Judges. One item we have not discussed in the past is the Tax Court’s “Reports & Statistics,” which is available here.

The Reports & Statistics page currently contains two items: (1) Congressional Budget Justification Reports and (2) Appellate Reports. The former contains reports for FY 2021, FY 2022 and FY 2023, and the latter contains, by months, cases commenced in the US Courts of Appeals from July 2020 through March 2022.

The Congressional Budget Justification Reports are submitted to the Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government in the US House of Representative and US Senate. The FY 2023 Congressional Budget Justification Report (FY23 Report), submitted February 28, 2022, includes detailed information regarding the operations of the Tax Court and breakdown of its expenses (both prior and anticipated future expenses).

The FY23 Report contains details on the Tax Court’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the substantial increase in petitions filed in FY 2021 (35,297 petitions, up from the historical average of between 23,000 and 26,000 petitions). The report also discusses the court’s use of in-person and remote proceedings over the past two years, noting that the success of remote proceedings and the move to institutionalize remote proceedings post-pandemic.

For FY 2023, the Tax Court requested a budget of $57,300,000. This constitutes a 1.6% decrease from the FY 2022 requested budget. The following charts reflect prior and current requests and staffing levels.

A few other points are worth mentioning. The FY23 Report indicates that the Tax Court does not plan on holding a Judicial Conference in 2023 due to ongoing uncertainties relating to the COVID-19 pandemic (the last Judicial Conference was held in FY 2018). The FY23 Report also discusses the status of the Limited Entry of Appearance procedures that started in September 2019 and mentions certain legislative proposals submitted to Congress for fee proposals (e.g., raising the fee for filing a petition from $60 to $100). Finally, the FY23 Report notes that there are two vacancies for judicially appointed Judges (we note that currently no individuals have been nominated for these vacancies).

Practice Point: The FY23 Report contains detailed information about the Tax Court. It is worth a quick read for those who practice in the Tax Court or are interested in learning more about the Court’s operations.




Late CDP Petitions May Still Be Entitled to Tax Court Review

In a unanimous decision in Boechler, P.C. v. Commissioner issued on April 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit’s ruling (which affirmed the US Tax Court) and held that the 30-day time limit to file a petition with the Tax Court in a collection due process (CDP) case is a non-jurisdictional deadline subject to equitable tolling. The Supreme Court remanded the case to determine whether the taxpayer is entitled to equitable tolling.

The one-day-late showdown started in 2015, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified Boechler, P.C. (Boechler), a North Dakota law firm, of a tax discrepancy. Boechler did not respond, which triggered the assessment of an “intentional disregard” penalty along with a notice that the IRS intended to seize Boechler’s property to satisfy the penalty. Boechler requested a CDP hearing before the IRS Independent Office of Appeals (IRS Appeals), arguing that: (1) there was no discrepancy in its tax filings and (2) the penalty was excessive. IRS Appeals rejected these arguments and sustained the proposed levy. Boechler then had 30 days to file its Tax Court petition but missed the deadline by one day. The Tax Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, holding that the 30-day filing deadline is jurisdictional and cannot be equitably tolled. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari. The US government argued that the deadline was jurisdictional and the Tax Court lacks the power to accept a tardy filing by applying the doctrine of equitable tolling. Boechler argued that equitable tolling applied, and the Tax Court had jurisdiction over its case. The Supreme Court, continuing a trend of distinguishing between claim processing rules and jurisdictional rules, agreed with Boechler.

Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6330(d)(1) states, “[t]he person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction with respect to such matter).” The Supreme Court explained that a procedural requirement is treated as jurisdictional “only if Congress ‘clearly states’ that it is” Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U. S. 500, 515 (2006), although US Congress need not “incant magic words.” Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center, 568 U. S. 145, 153 (2013).

The Supreme Court clarified that the question was whether the statutory language limits the Tax Court’s jurisdiction to petitions filed within that timeframe. That answer turned on the meaning of the phrase “such matters.” The first independent clause explains what a taxpayer may do, (“The person may, within 30 days of a determination under this section, petition the Tax Court for review of such determination.”) However, the phrase “such matters” does not clearly mandate the jurisdictional reading and lacks clear antecedent. In addition, the Supreme Court also explained that Code Section 6330(d)(1) lacked in comparable clarity as to other tax provisions enacted around the same time. Finally, the Supreme [...]

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Tax Court Special Trial Judge Daniel A. Guy Retires

On April 1, 2022, the US Tax Court announced that Special Trial Judge (STJ) Daniel A. Guy has retired, effective March 31, 2022. STJ Guy served the Tax Court in various roles for more than 30 years, the last 10 in the capacity of STJ. He was recently honored with the J. Edgar Murdock Award for his distinguished service to the Tax Court. McDermott wishes STJ Guy the best in his post-Tax Court endeavors.




Tax Court Proposes New Rules of Practice and Procedure

On March 23, 2022, the US Tax Court announced new proposed rules for practicing before it. The Court proposed three new rules, amendments to existing rules and changes to conform the existing rules to various forms. The proposed changes also reflect the Court’s move toward conformity with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

OVERVIEW OF THE NEW PROPOSED RULES

The new rules include Rule 63, Rule 92 and Rule 152. Rule 63 provides rules to parties seeking to intervene in a Court proceeding who have an unconditional right and a conditional right to intervene by a federal statute.

Rule 92 provides rules to identify and certify an administrative record in certain actions. The explanation to the proposed rule states that proposed Rule 92 is meant,

[T]o fill a gap in the Court’s Rules of Practice and Procedure. Although the Court has longstanding Rules governing the submission of the administrative record in declaratory judgment cases, see Title XXI of the Court’s Rules, the Court has not adopted a rule of procedure or a uniform process governing the submission of the administrative record to the Court in other actions where judicial review is normally limited to the administrative record or where judicial review requires an examination of the administrative record and other relevant evidence, as appropriate.

Rule 152 provides a uniform rule for the Court to accept briefs filed by amicus curiae. The explanation to the rule states that proposed Rule 152 is a corollary to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and Rule 7(o) of the local rules for the US District Court for the District of Columbia. We previously discussed amicus briefs in the Court, and this change is a welcome development to provide specific procedures in the area.

NOTABLE REVISIONS TO EXISTING RULES

Proposed Rule 21, Service of Papers, makes service of pleadings through the Court’s electronic system the default method for serving papers upon the Court and opposing parties.

Proposed Rule 23, Form and Style of Papers, omits all prefixes (e.g., Mr., Ms.) from pleadings. The amendment would also permit the use of a typed written name on a pleading that is filed electronically with the Court to constitute that person’s signature.

Proposed Rule 70, Scope of Discovery, would add the following rule:

Discovery must be proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

Additionally, the amendment proposes that any information withheld under a claim of privilege must be expressly made and describe the nature of the documents, communications, etc., not produced to enable the other party the ability to assess the privilege claim. The rule also adds provisions for the return of privileged documents that were inadvertently disclosed to the opposing [...]

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